Lab-grown meat isn’t the solution

Why growing meat from stem cells can’t solve the ethical or environmental problems with our food system
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Richard Dawkins wants to eat human flesh.

No, really. It’s no secret: he tweeted about it last year. ‘I’ve long been looking forward to this’, he wrote, ‘Could we overcome our taboo against cannibalism?’ Don’t worry, though. He wasn’t talking about eating people – just eating human meat grown from someone’s stem cells in a lab. Nobody gets hurt, so it’s fine and not weird at all. Right?

Dawkins was commenting on an article that predicted lab-grown meat would hit the supermarket shelves in 2018. Lab grown animal meat, by the way, not human meat – Dawkins was just taking it a bit too far, as he tends to do. Lab-grown meat didn’t turn up in the shops last year, but it’s definitely on its way at some point: a report last week predicted 35% of our meat would be lab-grown by 2040.

Growing lumps of meat in a lab instead of having to farm and slaughter animals is often hailed as the solution to all the ethical and environmental problems with our carnivorous diets. Less damaging to the environment, less suffering for animals, and delicious meat for humans to eat. Win-win-win. It’s even got the backing of animal advocate and utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.

But is lab-grown meat really the silver bullet it’s made out to be? I’m not so sure. On a closer look, it doesn’t seem likely to solve the problems with eating meat – ethical or environmental.

Lab-grown meat could turn us into moral weaklings

Peter Singer may be unconcerned about lab-grown meat, but that’s because he’s a proponent of consequentialist ethics: a view on which what matters ethically are the consequences of our actions, the actual outcomes. Whichever outcome on balance produces the most happiness or least suffering is the right one. For Singer, it’s a no-brainer: fewer animals are being hurt and people are still able to eat meat. Nobody’s being harmed, so what could be wrong with it?

Others, like philosopher Ben Bramble, are more worried. It’s not the immediate consequences of lab-grown meat that are troubling, but the moral attitudes lab-grown meat promotes. It could promote a lack of respect for animals, and a lack of moral virtue in humans.

Let’s look at the problem. Our current food system is pretty terrible. Billions of animals live their lives in horrific conditions, huge areas of land are wasted to grow crops to feed them, and the emissions from this process are a big contributor to climate change. Some people have responded to the problem by choosing to buy meat from smaller, ethical producers or becoming vegan and vegetarian. But most still buy whatever is on the supermarket shelves – that’s why the system remains so profitable.

Lab-grown meat is meant to solve this problem by giving people an easy alternative. You don’t have to research the farms your meat comes from, or stop eating meat altogether. You can just carry on exactly as you did before, except the burger you buy from the shop will have come from a petri dish rather than a cow. But is this solution too easy? It doesn’t require us to change our behaviour at all in response to what we know is a damaging problem. We’re not having to flex our moral muscles and make any kind of change – instead we’re just finding another way to carry on behaving as we always have.

To see the problem, let’s think about a slightly different case. Imagine that the government found a new way to stop burglaries happening: instead of having to actually steal things, would-be thieves could just note down the things they want to steal and the government would provide them for free. It’s a very effective way to stop burglaries happening, because nobody has to change their behaviour. They just get what they want without anyone else being harmed. But it still seems a less than ideal solution, precisely because nobody has had to rethink their urge to steal – instead it’s just a new way to satisfy that urge. It’s the same with lab-grown meat: we haven’t had to change our behaviour in response to an ethical problem, we’ve just had the problem solved for us.

Perhaps a staunch consequentialist would say this doesn’t matter at all – it’s the outcome that matters. But this sense that something’s not quite right seems to suggest that there’s more to acting morally than just the consequences.

Eating lab-grown meat is fine, but the lack of moral effort we’ve had to put in may come back to bite us later when we face an ethical problem where there is no easy solution. We may find ourselves less able to change our behaviour in the future if we’re used to waiting for some new technology to solve the problem for us.

What’s wrong with eating lab-grown human meat?

Back to Richard Dawkins’ cannibalistic fantasy: the rise of lab-grown meat could actually make it a reality.

Once we can easily create slabs of meat from stem cells, we’re faced with a choice. One the one hand, we could just use it to create meat from the animals we’re used to eating: pigs, chickens and cows. But this seems a bit speciesist, doesn’t it? If we can create blobs of muscle from any source we want, with no pain or suffering for the thing being eaten, why only create meat from the animals we currently farm? Rather than taking the opportunity to repair our relationship with animals, we’re continuing to see them as the kind of things that are for eating.

On the other hand, if we wanted to be totally fair about the whole thing, we could create meat not just from animals, but from humans too. That’s true equality. After all, nobody would be getting hurt: it’s just grown in a lab from a bunch of stem cells.

There’s a catch: overcoming our ‘taboo against cannibalism’ might not be something we necessarily want to do. Once we’re all happy to munch away on our human burgers, will we be able to stop thinking of people as meaty snacks? Will we be eyeing up our work colleagues, wondering what they’d taste like in a sausage? And what if the meat labs close down – will we be so hooked on human meat that we end up killing and eating each other?

All speculation, but Dawkins should be careful what he wishes for.

Will lab-grown meat actually help the environment?

In 2013 two food experts sat down in a brightly lit television studio and ate a burger. A live studio audience watched their every move – they gingerly cut off tiny chunks of pink meat, sniffed them with frowning expressions, and chewed each mouthful with intense concentration. Their meal was broadcast on news bulletins around the world.

This was the first taste-test of a lab grown burger, which cost $330,000 and took two years to make. The experts’ verdict: a little dry and lacking in flavour.

The technology has developed since then, but it’s still not certain that lab-grown burgers will be able to perfectly replicate the meat we’re used to eating now. So what’s the point of investing all this money, resource and energy into developing them? We already have passable plant-based meat imitations – I’ve had a B12 burger and it wasn’t dry or flavourless. What problem is lab-grown meat meant to be solving that can’t also be solved by plant-based ‘burgers’?

Lab-grown meat is supposed to solve the environmental problems caused by our meat consumption: the emissions from beef farming, as well as the huge amounts of land being used up growing feed for livestock. But a number of studies have raised questions about this – arguing that, in fact, the process could emit enough CO2 to make global warming worse than if we carried on with our current meat-eating habits. Switching to plant-based burgers would do a much better job at reducing emissions.

The main reason lab-grown meat is touted as a brilliant solution, is that it won’t require people to change their habits at all. Switching to a plant-based diet is a bit of a departure, even if you stick to vegan burgers and sausages that taste pretty meaty. But with lab-grown meat, you can carry on eating just the same as you always did – it’s just that your hotdog or Sunday roast will have come from a lab.

This argument doesn’t fly either. As we’ve seen, it isn’t a given that lab-grown meat really will taste exactly the same as the real thing. If you’re going to eat a slightly-different imitation, might as well eat the plant one that doesn’t cost millions of dollars to develop.

And there’s a bigger obstacle to people making an easy switch to lab-grown meat: the ‘yuck’ factor of eating food grown in a lab through a technological process. People are reluctant to try foods that are perceived as artificial or ‘unnatural’, and to many the idea of blobs of muscle grown in a lab sounds revolting. Switching to eating burgers made from plants doesn’t seem to much of a stretch in comparison.

We can’t wait for technology to solve all our problems

Lab-grown meat has been on the horizon for a long time, promised again and again by headlines but always tantalisingly out of reach. This constant promise of an easy solution to our problems in the near future may discourage us from changing our habits today. We can’t afford to wait – we need to take action right now if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown.

Luckily, we don’t have to wait: if we want to eat meat substitutes we can just go down to the shops and choose from a huge range of plant-based foods right now. No need to hold out for lab-grown meat – just start eating plants instead.

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